Saturday, 9 May 2015

URBANITY IN ART HISTORY: Canadian Artists in Towns and Cities

URBANITY IN ART HISTORY: Canadian Artists in Towns and Cities

A recent highlight in the gallery was a lovely little oil on panel by historical Royal Canadian Academy member John Young Johnstone. It is a fine impressionistic example of the observations of turn of the century urban life. Landscape paintings hold a special place in Canadian art history, but this does not mean that our artists never sketched or painted their observations and interpretations of cities and towns. The peoples and places of urban areas offered artists a wide variety of subject choices; either intimate or monumental. Bustling crowds, colourful billboards, interactions of daily life, and architecture co-mingled with greenery and rivers all offered an abundance of subject matter.

John Young Johnstone Rue Mouffetard, Paris (1912)(Available soon at Masters Gallery, Vancouver)

Canadian artists of the past painted cities and towns at home and abroad. Our cities were not populous to the magnitude that they are now, but they still offered artists plenty to paint. Canadians studying and living abroad also painted their interpretations of European, African, and American cities.

Most artists will have tried their hand at urban scenes, even if landscape art was their strength. For example, JEH MacDonald of the Group of Seven experimented with Toronto urbanity early on in his career and produced one of his most remembered canvases Tracks and Traffic in 1912. An example later in the 20th century is EJ Hughes oil on canvas of the city of Calgary. It is a vista of the cityscape from 1957. Hughes is most known for his scenes of coastal and interior British Columbia.

JEH MacDonald Tracks and Traffic (1912) oil on canvas (Art Gallery of Ontario)

E.J. Hughes Calgary (1957) (Glenbow Museum, Calgary)

A handful of historical artists focused quite a significant amount of time on urban subject matter, and excelled at it. A few that come to mind in both the 19th and early 20th centuries are William Raphael, Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith, James Wilson Morrice, Lawren Harris and David Milne. This is not to say that other artists of high calibre (like Johnstone, or John Lyman) have not produced fabulous city works. These artists found a way of making life in town markets, relaxing cafes and distinctive architecture uniquely their own.

William Raphael Bonsecours Market, Montreal (1880) (Recently acquired by the National Gallery of Canada from the sale of the Winkworth Collection of Canadiana at Christies, London, UK)

John Lyman Cafe, Rue Royale, Paris 1909 (Musee National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec)

Morrice was fascinated with many cities throughout Europe and Northern Africa, and is known for his Paris, Venice, and Tangiers scenes. Bell-Smith focused on London life, and sometimes Paris.

James Wilson Morrice, Fruit Market, North Africa (1914) (Montreal Museum of Fine Art)

James Wilson Morrice Venice at the Golden Hour (1901-02) (Montreal Museum of Fine Art)

Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith Westminster Bridge, circa 1957 (Archives of Ontario)

Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith Old and New London, Staples Inn, Holborn

Both Harris and Milne devoted periods in their early careers to urban landscapes, and in for both artists these works have remained some of the most sought after from their oeuvres on the art market. Milne specialized in distinctively coloured interpretations of New York City, and Harris was deeply passionate about the less fortunate districts of inner city Toronto. Harris is often referred to as the father of the Group of Seven and a champion of the Northern landscape, yet to-date 3 out of the top 5 selling Harris paintings on the public market have been Harris urban neighborhood scenes.

Lawren Harris Street in Berlin (1907)

Lawren Harris The Eaton Manufacturing Building (1911) (Ex. Eaton's Collection)

Lawren Harris Toronto Houses, circa 1919

Lawren Harris In the Ward, Grocery Store, circa 1920

David Milne Ripon, Yorkshire (Feb 1919) (Art Gallery of Ontario)

David Milne White Matrix, New York (circa 1912)(Ex. Milne Family Collection)

David Milne Billboards, New York (circa 1912) (National Gallery of Canada)

David Milne Grey Billboards, New York (circa 1911-12) (Ex. Milne Family Collection)

I hope this small selection of urban masterpieces reminds us all of how diverse Canadian art history is, and that many artists created masterpieces beyond the realm of pure landscape art in our past.